Skill, grit, tenacity. All are traditional tools by which fans and now, even pro scouts, measure success. At one time, those qualities were the only barometer to gauge talent, but over the last decade evaluating players has become mathematical.
Sports analytics is a term that may not be familiar to fans, but it has become a way of life for pro sports organizations. Its loosely defined as a set of complicated statistical formulas that transcend the traditional. Over the last several years, Major League Baseball teams dissect talent using an analytic method, known as Sabermetrics.
"The measurements of the ability to field, to hit a pitch, are getting very good," says Andy Andres, who teaches a Sabermetrics course at Tufts University. He has watched teams like the Red Sox use analytics to bring in players who may not impress with the naked eye. He says a classic example is Red Sox second baseman, Dustin Pedroia. "Scouts hated his swing, they hated his size, but he would rake. He was an on base machine that always hit."
But these stats go beyond batting average and home runs. A popular statistic used by Sabermatricians is called EqA, or equivalent average. It measures a player's hitting ability by adding stats like hits, total bases, walks, to come up with a number that has become a standard of success. If it looks and sounds complicated, it is. That's why many organizations like the Red Sox are enlisting the help of graduates, and even current students from schools like Harvard and MIT.
"It's very much a young person's game at this point," says Shira Springer, a sports writer for the Boston Globe for the better part of a decade. In a recent article, Springer wrote about the evolution of sports analytics, and the technology associated with it. "There is a program out there, where you can put in Rajon Rondo, you can say I want a player like Rajon Rondo, and search all of the available free agents, not just for next year, but for the next five years," Springer says.
"We are really trying to push the envelope on what information is out there and how teams can get access to it," says Evan Wasch, a sophomore at MIT's Sloan School of Management. He's a student co-chair of MIT Sloan Sports Analytics conference, an event that brings in front office execs from across the country to discuss the ever-evolving field. "We're not the sports geeks the people think we are really here to bring it out in the light the advanced strategic analytical thinking as it applies to a sports team," Wasch says.
Brian Biello was brought in by Robert Kraft and the New England Patriots to serve a strategic role. he's now the Chief Operating Officer of the New England Revolution. He says, like many NFL teams the Patriots have used analytics for years, but soccer is new to the game. "There are a lot of analytics tools you can employ to give yourself an edge. Is it a 1% edge, 5% edge, is it a 30% edge? It varies, but anything is good," Biello says.
As athletes evolve, so does sports analytics. Right now, somebody is working on an equation to better analyze talent, and while that may be the case, intangibles, like toughness, clutch play, and heart can't be measured at least, not yet.